It’s an open secret that pop stars dredge up the good ol’ days when they need a hit. Taylor Swift’s stellar latest album is called 1989 for crying out loud, which may symbolize the full saturation of the ongoing 80s synthpop renaissance. For its pretentious attitude towards pop, college radio is no less susceptible: Ty Segall’s Manipulator drips with 70s glam and Temples’ Sun Structures is as much an album as it is a time capsule from 1968. Indie rock’s latest hobby is double backing to the devil-may-care riffs of the early 2000s, proving that it’s never too early to put on the rose-colored glasses.
It comes as no surprise then that DJ-turned-producer Mark Ronson is counting on contemporary audiences’ love of yesteryear with Uptown Special, his deliciously funky fourth record. It’s no surefire bet – 70s funk and 90s hip-hop lack the established listenership synthpop, 2000s alternative and psych presently enjoy. As a result Ronson can’t just play on nostalgia. He has to create it first.
Luckily he has a lot of help. Jeff Bhasker (who has previously produced Kanye West and Lana Del Rey) lends a hand with the songwriting while Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon takes a turn as lyricist. Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker melts spacey psych into the album’s pervasive groove to marvelous results. The ever unstoppable Bruno Mars shimmies and snaps through lead single “Uptown Funk,” which serves as the call to virtual unknown Keyone Starr’s dynamic response on “I Can’t Lose.” “Shake Ya Ass” now years behind him, Mystikal taps into the wild abandon of James Brown on the lone rap track “Feel Right.” Finally, as though issuing a stamp of approval of the new breed, Stevie Wonder plays smooth harmonica to the first and last tracks of the album.
Ronson’s skills as a producer and songwriter hardly need hours to materialize, but it’s a small miracle (or feat of genius, you choose) that Uptown Special manages to be so musically full within the space of 39 minutes. The perfectly paced record shimmers with a glossy funk finish, each song polished until Ronson can see his reflection. The record may not push too many boundaries but it also refuses to remain entrenched in the sonic past that serves as inspiration. Uptown Special is above all a thoroughly modern funk record, even as it rides the nostalgia it creates. Irresistible, groovy, and just progressive enough – what’s not to love?